Gallery: How Good Design and Building Codes Saved Lives During Chile’s ...


This past Saturday, the world awoke to yet another horrific natural disaster, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake right off the coast of Chile near Concepcion. It’s only been 2 days since the deadly quake and the death toll has already risen to over 700. However in comparison, the Haiti earthquake (which measured 7.0 on the Richter scale) was 500 times less powerful than the one last Saturday but over 250,000 people were killed. Based on magnitude alone, the death toll from Chile should be much higher and the devastation much more complete – but that’s not the case. Chile can thank foresight and smart planning for that, and its situation is a testament to what a huge life-or-death difference smart building codes and well designed architecture can make.

Chile has been decimated by earthquakes before. In fact, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded was a 9.5 in 1960 in close proximity to the epicenter of Saturday’s quake. Since Chile has seen its fair share of earthquakes it has worked hard to prepare and protect against others. The country’s building codes, are recognized as some of the best in the world, and the country has implemented many quake-resistant building techniques to stem future disasters. Since the 1960’s, seismic codes have been enforced for all new construction based on what they call the “strong columns weak beam” system. As BBC describes it:

“The idea is that buildings are held up by reinforced concrete columns, which are strengthened by a steel frame. Reinforced concrete beams are joined onto the columns to make floors and the roof. If there is an earthquake, the idea is that the concrete on the beams should break near the end, which dissipates a lot of the energy of the earthquake, but that the steel reinforcement should survive and the columns should stay standing, which means the building will stay upright.”

Our good friend over at ArchDaily and Platforma Arquitectura, David Basulto, has been reporting live from his home in Chile, and he says, “The country was seriously affected, especially in the southern part… several old buildings collapsed, and even new buildings collapsed. It could have been way worse, if compared to Haiti… This was due to the country’s seismic design code, recognized as one of the best in the world.” Of course buildings were destroyed, roads and bridges did collapse, and lives were lost, but it could have been so much worse.

Haiti, unfortunately, was not prepared for a 7.0 earthquake. Their poverty, lack of earthquake-resistant architecture, and inability to enforce what seismic code they had led to the mass destruction of property and life that occurred. The point really is that preparedness through planning, creation of adequate building codes, designing for disaster and enforcement of those codes makes an incredibly significant impact. Our hearts go out to the people of Chile and Haiti and their loss, but we are encouraged that quality architecture and infrastructure can actually save lives.

Pictures found at The Big Picture

*Author’s Note: Having spent three weeks this last December touring Chile, I saw some of the area that was destroyed. My husband and I were exceedingly impressed by the architecture, their efficient bus transportation, the speedy metro system in Santiago, and their overall progressiveness. The loss and devastation is tragic for the wonderful people of Chile. Our hearts go out to you. It is also exceedingly ironic that while the tsunami was speeding across the Pacific Ocean, we were on a flight to the big island of Hawaii, for what we didn’t know awaited us. Congrats to Hawaii for being prepared and ready for an event that thankfully didn’t occur.


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  1. dpizarrom March 3, 2010 at 11:36 pm

    I’m writing from Concepción right now, since electricity is coming back to the city i’m now able to have a glimpse on what the world is saying about our country.
    In relation to this article, i agree. Architecture did save a lot of lives, but what really did cause most of the devastation was not the earthquake, but the lack of good decisions and the centralization in our government. Many lives would have been saved if our president would have reacted immediately right after the disaster, but she decided to wait a whole day. Architecture is important, but what what really failed here were the authorities.
    That said i have to say that i’m very impressed by the speed on which we are coming back to normal. Most of the city now has electricity and water, and food is coming from every corner of the world. The streets are being cleaned and trash is being recollected. All that and it’s only been 4 days.
    We now have a long way to go to rebuild the country and our city, i only hope that in the future good decisions are taken.

    ps. the earhquake was just about 100 kms from Concepción, which is very very close to the city. But if by urban area you mean Santiago, then it was far from it.

  2. lpoblete March 1, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    In Chile the main damages was caused by tsunami besides oldest buildings, most of them at down-towns of the cities, fortunately many buildings have resisted 8.8 earthquake like the bottom pictures. Does not meant inside of the buildings furnitures are in their right place, buildings are designed to absorb the earthquake energy, that means, depending of their tall the displacement of the top of the building can varies 20-30cm. or more as a part of the designing criteria.

    I am sure most of newest buildings/highways that has been collapsed, is due to a bad construction/design practices.

    Luis Poblete.
    Civil Engineer, University of Chile.

  3. nick_gogerty March 1, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    yes, design and standards helped, but the epicenter of the Chilean earthquake was much farther away from the urban area. Thus the energy release was significantly attenuated by the mass between the epicenter and the structures.

    good design and building codes definitely help, but getting them implemented and getting property registered in a proper cadastral database is a first start. We have to hack the bureaucracy for land registration for real impact.

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